SUPPORT NEEDED 'We are looking at a proper existential threat to Irish film & television industry,' says Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson
His smash-hit show Normal People helped entertain millions during the darkest days of the lockdown. Now filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson has urged the State to further support other shows and Ireland’s crisis-hit arts sector, which he says is facing “a proper existential threat”.
The Oscar and Emmy-nominated director says the ongoing impact of Covid-19 has devastated film, TV and the arts. Many companies have been unable to go into production with new filming projects as they cannot secure Covid-19 insurance. Independent and low-budget projects have been particularly impacted.
Last night Abrahamson called on the State to create an emergency insurance fund to help crippled Irish firms get the cameras rolling and get back on their feet. This practice has already been established in several other countries including the UK.
“You’re looking at a complete cessation in film and television production locally, in locally generated projects,” he said. “The impact of that is lots and lots of people will just leave the industry, you lose lots of skilled people, businesses will shut, infrastructure will gradually wither. So you’re looking at a proper existential threat to Irish film and television.
“I think people recognise the value of that. It’s also the cultural effect, people don’t get to watch great things. They don’t get to see their own
country and their own society and the people they know reflected on screen. That’s something that would be a huge loss.”
While Abrahamson believes that arts funding in Ireland should be increased across the board post-Covid, film and TV is the world he knows best. Like many other filmmakers, he’s spent years making movies after the Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland) was re-established in the 1990s, and witnessed how the industry grew.
As well as directing the first six episodes of the global sensation Normal People, movies like Adam & Paul, Frank, Garage and the Oscar-winning Room have made him one of our best-known storytellers. He treasures how Ireland has built up its indigenous film and TV business, and fears for its future.
“It took years before we started to see a really vibrant film and television industry where you get films that people really want to see. A lot of the time, individual artists and actors and writers etc, live pretty much hand to mouth and did live hand to mouth before the pandemic.
“Now, they’re having to find other ways of just generating some income to make ends meet.
“And there’s really nothing happening in the performance base at all. Music, and theatre and all the things that involve gathering people together in live circumstances, that’s just all catastrophic.”
Abrahamson welcomed funding and support schemes already allocated to agencies like Screen Ireland and The Arts Council, but feels a great deal more needs to be done given the scale of the crisis.
“I think that commitment has to be maintained because this is not going to go away quickly. We’ve been historically really low in our funding of the arts,” he says, praising the work of National Campaign For the Arts both before and since the Covid crisis.
“As an industry and an ecosystem and a part of our world that is important to people it is more vulnerable, because it’s never been robust. Government does like to wave the cultural flag on the international stage all the time, the success of artists and writers and filmmakers and actors, that has cultural power abroad. They’re never shy of a photo op when it comes to success.
“But those things don’t come out of nowhere. And if they’re really serious about valuing it, they have to commit to what is a relatively small amount of money to bring us up to the sort of level that other countries in our part of the world enjoy.”
The prime issue for film and TV production, says Abrahamson, is insurance. Companies will not insure against Covid-related issues or delays, and most productions simply cannot afford to indemnify themselves and are stuck in limbo. The UK has put aside £500 million as a fund to help regenerate its industry.
“I think there needs to be a proportionate kind of response...one which is proportionate to the level of production here.
“Chances are they won’t have to use all or even any of it, but it has to be there.
“Without that, domestic production can’t begin. The minister did give a little bit of money to Screen Ireland, some of which is earmarked for that, but it’s really a drop in the ocean.”
The director told how filming on Normal People was completed just a week and a half before lockdown measures began, with some of the final technical work being done from people’s homes.
He will next start production on Conversations With Friends, also adapted from a Sally Rooney novel.
“That’s going to happen end of this year or beginning of the next in terms of shooting, and it’s an amazing story.
“It’ll be done like in a similar format to Normal People in that we’re looking at shortish episodes.”
He’s also developing a film about US boxer Emile Griffith, a star of the sport in the 1960s and 70s.